Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Gift of the Gab or Gift of the Pen?

In War and Peace, young Natasha Rostov chafes with frustration when circumstances separate her for a year from her fiance, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. She sends him letters, but written communication is an utter drag to her, because using a pen as the medium for her thoughts is foreign to Natasha's dynamic nature. It's clunky and tiresome for her. Here is what Tolstoy tells us about Natasha.

'She was no great writer, and found it impossible to set down adequately in a letter the thousandth part of what she was used to conveying by means of her voice, her smile and her eyes. She wrote him a series of dry, formal and identical missives to which she attached not the slightest importance, with spelling mistakes corrected by the countess (her mother) at the rough copy stage.' 

Does that make you nod with understanding and sympathy for her? I've met many people I'm sure would relate to Natasha. They are people whose spontaneous speech I envy. Thoughts seem to bubble instantly to the tips of their tongues, enabling them to express ideas fluently with conviction the moment they enter their heads. To put it another way, their mental conception and verbal expression appear simultaneous. This fortunate pairing often seems to go with extroverted personalities, and I can understand why. When your mind and tongue enjoy such reliable teamwork, it  strengthens your social confidence, as you're unlikely to humiliate yourself by stuttering and scrambling for words. This strikes me as a happy flow circle, as opposed to a vicious circle. And Tolstoy's Natasha belongs in this group. Vivid, colourful, talkative and alive.

I consider myself part of an opposite group who tend to get uneasy in social situations. I think 'mind paralysis' is a good term for the blank panic we experience, when some cruel thumb seems to press the 'Refresh' buttons of our minds just when we want to talk. Our thoughts seem to scoot far from us, and our speech lags even further behind. We are certain this makes us appear more dense and bereft than we really are. We are the folk who rely heavily on our pens and keyboards as the best tools to offer us a way out. After many years of trying to deal with this phenomenon, I've at least learned some info to help us understand why it happens.

Apparently this mind paralysis occurs mainly in introverts (no surprise there) and is because of the depth to which we have to dive for the words we need. Introverts tend to reach down into our long term memories for whatever we want to say, while extroverts have more of a rapport with their short term memories. That's why they often discover that smooth spiel at the tips of their tongues which makes me envious.

With me, and maybe you too, there is often a time lapse, and sometimes a long one. I may have a sketchy idea of something interesting or meaningful to say, but the words don't flow to my tongue on the spot. They can take several seconds. Often I need to mull my ideas over and think them through more carefully before I have anything cohesive to say. Meanwhile people are looking at me and waiting for pearls of wisdom which I fear they won't get. Ever since my childhood, I've practiced training myself out of this awkward reaction, which usually means resorting to second-rate words just to cut short that awkward pause. I'm aware that well-spoken answers will never be reflexive for me, no matter how hard I practice. I know in my heart that whatever I manage to come up with verbally falls far short of what I would write, had I the time.

I understand and sympathise with introverts who dread parties because they fear being put on the spot. Who wants to be that guest with the silly smile and blank mind? We crash when we get home, understandably. Winging it while our brains are telling us, 'I've got nothing,' is exhausting work. While our extrovert friends have been enjoying some pleasant paddling, we've done the equivalent of deep sea diving for several hours.

On top of this, we deal with stress hormones such as cortisol which flood our bodies while we anxiously stand there, unwilling to look like idiots. It's the ancient 'fight or flight' situation, but instead of saber-toothed tigers, we face smiling friends with finger food and cups of tea.

Susan Cain, the author of 'Quiet', tells us that when it comes to writing, the introvert's expression is quite different. Although we are still working with words, they are coming from different neural pathways than our spoken words. Easier pathways which enable the flow to kick in. That's why, unlike Natasha Rostov, my pens and computer keyboard are stimulants rather than handicaps. It's nice to know there's a valid reason why some of us might prefer to choose tapping away on Messenger over picking up the telephone (that tool of interruption!) And why making a blog article out of this feels far clearer than I might come across trying to explain the same thing across the table. Some of us belong to a far quieter group than the first, but writing is a gift that enables us to spend time with you in a more eloquent way than we otherwise might.

I do wish I'd understood all this several years ago, because if there's one thing worth taking away, it's this. We sufferers of mind paralysis may never find ourselves totally at ease in life, but at least we no longer need to mentally beat ourselves up. Since there's a scientific basis for our malady, it's absolutely not a character defect! We aren't dummies with nothing to offer. Nor are we cowards, incapable of overcoming fear. And if we hear that we've been called stand-offish, we can rest assured that it's a mistaken assumption on the part of others who don't understand. We are simply people with more meandering feedback loops, when it comes to communication. Nothing takes the pressure off more than grasping this.

So where do you stand on the spectrum? Are you more of a Natasha or a Paula?

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

'Mary Barton' by Elizabeth Gaskell

This is Elizabeth Gaskell's first novel, a widely acclaimed work based on the actual murder, in 1831, of a progressive mill owner. It follows Mary Barton, daughter of a man implicated in the murder, through her adolescence, when she suffers the advances of the mill owner, and later through
love and marriage. Set in Manchester, between 1837-42, it paints a powerful and moving picture of working-class life in Victorian England.

Wow, this has blown me away. I'ts my choice in the Classic by a Woman category of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge. After reading Wives and Daughters followed by this debut, Mrs Gaskell now sits at the very top of my Victorian authors ranking. I think she's become my favourite of all, and I've read widely, including Dickens, Collins, the Brontes, Eliot, Trollope, Hardy and Austen (who was a Regency author, but we love to group her with the Victorians). Maybe I love Gaskell because her maternal, caring heart stirs up my own love for my kids. None of those others were actually mothers. Do you think it takes one to know one?

I read way into the early morning hours to finish it, and then the plot still kept whirling around in my head. Few readers might associate the name of Elizabeth Gaskell with nail-biting crime thrillers, but that's just what this social commentary and romance morphs into. For several chapters, there is one 'just in the nick of time' moment after another, that left me breathless.

For a start, it's a murder case. We have a strong heroine on a vital mission to save the hero's life, while time ticks away. That's not something we often see, especially from the Victorian era. But Jem has been condemned to die. He's no weakling in distress, but quite the opposite. He's strong and loyal, willing to lay down his life to protect and save others, when it seems there's no other way out. Mary has the tricky task of preventing the man she loves from making himself a scapegoat, while keeping quiet about another awkward twist that cannot be revealed. What more can we ask for, hey?

 One of my favourite parts of the book is the romance between Mary Barton and Jem Wilson, no thanks to Mary and her vacillation. She and Jem have known each other forever, and she initially hardens herself against his familiar face to focus on Harry Carson, the son of a factory owner. In times of such horrific poverty, I can't fault Mary for wanting to secure her family's future with a rich boy, but she makes the classic mistake of realising the worth of who she's thrown aside too late. It's sort of an, 'Oh dammit,' moment at first, since he's not the one her head tells her is the wisest match. But no girl can keep lying to herself when the truth dawns on her. Especially after a proposal to melt the hardest heart.

Anyway, the instant she makes her mistake, it's all action from there. Since Mary realises she's deeply in love with Jem straight after rejecting his proposal, you might wonder why she doesn't simply tell him. The answer is all tied up with the social expectations of females in the Victorian era. It would have been far too brazen and un-ladylike, so she decides on letting time pass, and hoping he picks up on more subtle clues, such as fluttery eyelashes and sweet smiles. But it turns out that when you tell a guy, 'Once and for all, I'll never marry you,' he might take your statement on face value. If women have changed over the last century, men certainly haven't. I can't help thinking he would have been delighted if she'd told him she changed her mind, and it certainly would have saved him loads of trouble later on. But these characters didn't ask to be born in the Victorian era, and had to operate within the conventional constraints they were given.

This book's background is interesting in itself. Gaskell's husband suggested she try writing a novel to help distract her from grief following the death of their toddler son from scarlet fever. It's a wonderful result from such a sad loss, yet there are several heart-wrenching death scenes. A few times I wondered, 'How could this possibly cheer her up?' and got the feeling it must have been cathartic. Sharing Gaskell's emotional release is our gain, and in the process she shows how fiction can be a more powerful instrument to bring people's attention to social negligence than anything else.

She'd originally intended to call the book 'John Barton' after Mary's father, another crucial main character. Gaskell felt deep pity for the hopeless class of men he represents. But it was probably a wise move not to, since Mary's name embodies the optimistic future, while John's mires us in the hopeless torpor of his bleak present. Yet he's possibly the character who sticks in our minds long after the story is over.

Poor John Barton is a prime example of how a good person might become a criminal. The working class are suffering and starving, and he has the thwarted heart of a kind crusader. His total inability to do anything to relieve the plight of the people he cares for sinks him into the deepest depression. With the fervour of the Trade Union behind him, he decides to lash out at wealthy factory owners, the class that seems directly responsible for the horror that surrounds him. The story really shows how John progresses from harmless family man to dangerous vigilante.

There are several other lovable supporting characters too, including Mary's blind friend Margaret, with her angelic singing voice, and her naturalist grandfather Job Legh, who often steals the scene. Touching father/daughter moments are abundant between Mary and John, not to mention poignant mother/son moments between Jem and Jane Wilson. She's a crosspatch who really grows on us. (Having her live under their roof to share their happily-ever-after would surely be a stretch on their marriage, haha.) And there's Jem's faithful and calm Aunt Alice, who exerts her loving, peaceful influence over everyone else, even when she's out of her right mind. Early on she says, 'An anxious mind is never a holy mind.'

Characters often drop great lines about watching our attitudes, which we can grab hold of. Since their circumstances elicit them on the spot, it never comes across as preaching but clearly wise coping tools and part of the plot. There's such a powerful moral study in a dialogue between three guys towards the end, I'll be reading it over and over again.

I guess Elizabeth Gaskell mixed her genres in a way modern authors are warned not to, the reason being that we need to be clear about our target audiences. But after reading Mary Barton, I think it's a shame we don't blend them this way anymore, because her target audience is clearly anybody with a beating heart.


Friday, May 10, 2019

Five Fantastic Mothers

With Mother's Day almost upon us, I'm thinking about the impact we have on our children, lingering in the form of fond memories. I'm afraid that if my kids were asked, they'd remember an incident that happened when they were small. At the end of a long day, I pulled some taco shells from the oven where they were meant to be getting warm, only to find them burned black as cinders and have them slip onto the floor and make me slip over. It was the last straw. So I started stamping the fragments to splinters, hoping the destruction would ease my temper. Suddenly my two eldest kids were there, laughing until they were almost crying. Even now, they'll ask each other, 'Do you remember Mum's taco stomp?' or tell their youngest brother, 'You should have seen it!'  

These other ladies have more illustrious things to be remembered for. This Mother's Day, instead of honouring fictional mothers, I'll share some tales I've heard about real life mothers from history.  

1) Saint Monica
She was Saint Augustine's mother, and also a saint in her own right. I once owned a little old book of saints which told her story. For years, her son was a party-goer who loved getting wasted and never spared a thought for the people he might be hurting, or his own destiny. Monica never gave up praying for Augustine, even when such a lot of time passed that other mothers might have abandoned the effort as a lost cause. It seems praying for her son was her main claim to fame.

2) Susannah Wesley
This remarkable lady bore almost 20 children and raised them in a tiny house with an absentee husband (although he must have shown up often enough to have fathered 19 children). The story goes that whenever the children saw her sitting at the kitchen table with her apron raised over her head, they knew not to bother her. It was her quiet time in which she reflected and prayed. I've heard this anecdote told to convince us that it's never strictly true that we can't get a moment to ourselves. Just spare a thought for Susannah and plug on.

Wikipedia tells us that even though she never wrote a book, preached a sermon or founded a church, she's still known as the mother of Methodism. This is because two of her sons, John and Charles, became famous. One was a great evangelist and the other a renowned hymn writer. We all like to think our good influence rubs off on our kids.

3) Nancy Matthews Elliot
She was Thomas Edison's mother. You might have seen this gem floating around on social media. The story goes that young Tom brought home a sealed note from his teacher. When his mother read it, she shed some tears and told him they'd decided he was such a genius, they'd run out of resources to teach him. She taught him at home instead, and years after her death, the famous inventor found the note among her old papers. What it really said was that he was so addled in the head, they refused to let him attend school anymore.

There are claims that the truth was tampered with, and that Edison was well aware of their low opinion of him. His mother was still a champion on his behalf, making a beeline into school to claim that he was not a dunce. Rather than being expelled, she pulled him out of school, since she saw that he'd never thrive among their limited and judgmental attitudes. In my opinion, this makes her just as much of a hero as the first tale.

Edison always claimed that his mother was the making of him, and her steady confidence in him made him always want to live up to it. It's a terrific tribute from a son.

4) Henrietta Seuss Geisel
I read somewhere that this lovely lady used to hold down a part time job at a bakery when her children were small. She was expected to memorise all the specialty pies to rattle off to customers, and used to practise in front of young Theodor, making up wacky tunes that made him laugh. She also encouraged his juvenile artistic efforts, giving him permission to practice drawing animals on his bedroom walls. Of course, young Ted grew up to be the beloved Dr Seuss. If my kids would remember me for this sort of quirky help and encouragement, I'd be more than happy. Especially if my own weirdness helped them to tap into their own specific skills. 

5) Hannah
Her story is told in the Biblical book of 1Samuel. Struggling with infertility and being taunted by her husband's other wife, she promised God that if ever she bore a son by some miracle, she'd make sure he grew up to be a godly man, and what's more, she'd dedicate him for temple service as a babe. That's exactly what happened, and each year when she made the pilgrimage to the temple with her family, she'd bring Samuel a handmade robe, a size larger each visit. And her son grew to be one of the illustrious Old Testament prophets, instrumental in crowning Israel's first two kings. 

I wish all fellow mothers, potential mothers, mentors, and any lady who has ever cared deeply for children, a very happy Mother's Day on Sunday. It's not always an easy role, and our purpose may seem to be the butt of jokes as often as it is offering wisdom. I'd like a dollar for every time I've heard something like, 'Hey, guess what Mum just said. She's so out of touch.' But it's all part of the job description, and proves that we need a sense of humour. 

If you can think of any other historical mothers (or hysterical in my case) who deserve recognition, please let us know.  

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

How Great Stories go Viral

When it comes to keeping stories alive, nothing really beats word of mouth. 'The grapevine' gets a rough wrap sometimes, because things like secrets, slander and rumours tend to multiply to plague proportions. Scandals are like weeds. They begin in some small corner of the garden, but before long, they've choked the good plants and everyone knows all about it.

But I'm sure we've all heard the saying, 'Why should the devil have all the good music?' In a similar way, we could ask, 'Why should the gossipers monopolise the grapevine?' When we use our tongues and pens to share good stuff, it's like cultivating a vineyard. Encouragement, beauty and inspiration have a chance to grow. Maybe when we look at it this way, we could even think of it as a responsibility.

Here's how I've seen the grapevine work within fiction itself, from a few random examples.

157993The Little Prince
A beautiful desert fox tells the small title character a great secret with which to approach life. In turn, the Little Prince passes it on to the narrator of the story, who he befriends when the man's small plane crashes. And then the narrator writes it in his book, and therefore tells us all. (To know more about the secret, see my review of The Little Prince.)

Emily Climbs
During a walking trip, the young heroine stays overnight with some acquaintances, to dodge wet weather. An elderly relative of theirs tells a story from her long gone past, about a time she worked as a nanny in a palace, and smacked the six-year-old heir to the throne for being naughty. Emily asks permission to write it as a story for a magazine. Weeks later, a famous writer and journalist named Miss Royal reads the story, and contacts Emily to offer her a job. So the tale of 'The Woman who Spanked the King' travels further than the young palace employee ever imagined.

The poor, tragic monster has been sewn together from random body parts. He manages to track down his creator, young Victor Frankenstein, and insists on telling him the story of the horrible rejection he's experienced since Victor first breathed life into him. Although Victor wants nothing to do with him, he agrees that he owes the monster the courtesy of listening. Then way later, he repeats the story to his new friend, sea captain Robert Walton, on whose vessel he's been rescued. It's such an incredible story, Robert includes it in the letters he sends home to his beloved sister Margaret. She presumably tells her husband and children. The message that we should treat people with kindness regardless of their initial appearance stays alive each time it's passed along. (Here's my review of Frankenstein)
Wuthering Heights
Catherine Earnshaw confesses her love for Heathcliff to the housekeeper, Nelly Dean. More than eighteen years down the track, Nelly repeats it to the convalescing Mr Lockwood, while she entertains him with the tale of his gruff landlord's personal history. Lockwood writes it in his personal journal and voila, more of the cosmopolitan people he rubs shoulders with have the potential to hear this tale of great love, and the folly of denying your own heart for social and monetary gain. (See my review of Wuthering Heights)

*    *    *

Although none of the stuff I've written online has ever gone viral, I'm always aware that we never know the full extent of how our spoken or written words might impact others. Between 2000 and 2014, I wrote nine novels which sold thousands of copies that disappeared into the ether. Every so often, I receive sudden welcome messages, as if from nowhere, about how one of them has been greatly appreciated by someone. It's always great to get feedback about older novels which have been read and enjoyed recently. Books and stories really are timeless.

So I'd like to encourage us all that this might be one of the simplest way to help change the world. We could write reviews about great works others have written, which is what this blog is all about. I also enjoy visiting the blogs of several other book reviewers. We can easily share stories and incidents, that have come across our path from others and lifted our hearts. Maybe our favourite questions could be, 'Can I share that?' or 'Would you mind if I tell my small group of friends?' or 'Could I incorporate that into an article I'm writing, if I give you credit?'

Let's keep the good grapes growing. 

Monday, April 29, 2019

'War and Peace' by Leo Tolstoy

Whoa, what an epic! It's my choice in the Very Long Classic category of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge, and at over 1300 pages, I'm very proud of myself. Now I'm among those people who can tick reading this behemoth off my bucket list. It's the size of a brick, but well worth reading. The story is set during the early nineteenth century, when Napoleon was leading French forces to invade Russia, and focuses on the lives of a few aristocratic families; the Bolkonskys the Rostovs and the Bezukhovs.

Readers with time on their hands have tallied over 600 characters altogether, which I believe we can whittle down to five major ones, including two brother and sister duos. There's Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, a disillusioned officer, and his pious sister Marya. And impulsive young Nikolai Rostov, off to war wet behind the ears, and his lively little sister Natasha. And then there's Pierre, the poor rich kid on the block.

It's a fair call to generalise that the two main families have opposite vibes happening. The Bolkonskys are cool, pragmatic, rational thinkers. Their crabby old dad, one of the most colourful characters, is a domineering former war hero who takes these cerebral traits to their unpleasantest extreme. On the other side, the Rostovs are reactive and passionate, driven by big emotions the second they feel them. Nikolai is a show-pony and tinder-box, ready to blast anyone who offends him. Natasha is unfocused, restless and falls for five guys within the course of the novel. Anyone in trousers, it sometimes seems. (In her defense, it is an extremely long novel.) The Rostovs are not lukewarm people but totally hot and cold, making some serious mistakes. It's a family trait, and their father is a great, pleasure-loving entertainer with the unfortunate fault of overdrawing on his estate, until he realises they're almost broke.

It's a really interesting read to see how two families poles apart in their thinking may influence each other, romantically and otherwise, and how the events of the plot stabilise and modify all of them.

I think my favourite main character is probably Pierre Bezukhov. He's a tubby and bespectacled young man who wants to understand all the ins and outs of life, but is swept around by every wind blowing. Even though he's shy and awkward, he still manages to make several social blunders, until he unexpectedly inherits his father's vast estate and becomes one of Russia's wealthiest men. Then people start overlooking his faux paus, to focus on his money.

I've never really pitied the recipient of an obscene windfall before, but Tolstoy really hones in on the dark side of Pierre's amazing luck. 'Coming as it did after a life of solitude and easy-going pleasure, now made him feel so hemmed in and preoccupied, the only time he could be alone with his thoughts was in bed.' This lovable nerd becomes the innocent target of wolves and sharks, and totally buys into all the scraping and fawning from people who never wanted to know him before. He tries hard not to be 'that guy' always on the verge of letting people down, and his guileless nature puts him in the position of a lamb on the chopping block. One of the things he's pushed into is marriage with Helene Kuragin, a ravishingly beautiful, but unscrupulous woman.

Part of what makes this saga special is the disillusionment and soul searching of our two main boys, Andrei and Pierre. Both are earnest seekers of something that seems elusive, no matter what they do and how hard they think (or overthink). Yet harsh circumstances brings each to his separate epiphany, which after a book so thick can be expressed in a sentence or two. Prince Andrei's is to do with the vital power of inclusive, divine love for everybody. And Pierre's is all about having the freedom to choose our attitude. The circumstances in which these two learn their lessons are epic.

Another really cool thing about the book is the inclusion of true, historical people as characters in the story. Tolstoy was one of the first authors to experiment with this, and I'll bet he thoroughly enjoyed writing Napoleon! He kept making the French invader come across like an absolute duffer. In real life, the poor guy's army was unexpectedly defeated by the Russians he invaded, and then later he was decimated by this Russian author's pen.

Whenever Napoleon stepped into a scene, I knew some unflattering portrait was coming. He was pompous, or arrogant, or having sneezing fits, or deserting his men, or getting his chest hair combed, or tweaking someone's ear, or singing his own praises, but often merely incompetent. Tolstoy slid in every dig he could, including the sort of play-on-words which likens his name to the state of his head (think 'Boney-Part'). I guess we have to take this with a grain of salt, considering Tolstoy clearly had an agenda. As my teenage son remarked, anybody in the position to have a shot at world domination must presumably have a few brains. But Tolstoy's Napoleon is very humorous to read.

One thing any reviewer is probably obligated to warn wannabe readers is that there is lots and lots of philosophical waffle, as Tolstoy airs his personal theories about the causes and nature of warfare, and the drawback of historians' way of making records. He does it over and over and over and over again. I don't object to the material itself so much as the fact that he deals it up within the pages of a novel. Seriously man, some people don't want their stories to keep being interrupted with major essays that would fit better in dry, historical journals. Maybe he thought it would be the only way some of us would get this sort of lesson (which is probably true). So although there are such very dry sections to drag our feet through, it's worth it for the good stuff.

The very last character to make an appearance is Prince Andrei's son Nikolai, who was born early on in the book, and has reached the age of 15 by the end. This teenager has just had a vivid dream, and lies excitedly in bed, thinking of all the ways he'll make his beloved Uncle Pierre proud, and become loved by everyone. I was actually sort of disappointed to have it end there, as if 1300 pages was not enough! I would have happily read on to see how he fared, and find out all about the next generation. That's proof that even though my hand was aching with the weight of holding it, Tolstoy did something right.

It's a five star read, without a doubt. In fact, when I turned the last page, I felt torn between wanting to keep a respectful, contemplative silence, or giving Tolstoy a standing ovation. I think I might even have some sort of 'Yay, I finished War and Peace' party for one.

It also counts toward my 2019 European Reading Challenge, as a selection from Russia. 
And you might also like to compare it to my thoughts on Anna Karenina, another Tolstoy masterpiece.


Tuesday, April 23, 2019

'The Little Prince' by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Moral allegory and spiritual autobiography, The Little Prince is the most translated book in the French language. With a timeless charm it tells the story of a little boy who leaves the safety of his own tiny planet to travel the universe, learning the vagaries of adult behaviour through a series of extraordinary encounters. His personal odyssey culminates in a voyage to Earth and further adventures.

This is my choice for the Classic in Translation category of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge. It's one of those stories where I feel we can't help revealing aspects of the plot when we discuss the themes, but I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum. It's a great fable first published in 1943. The author, Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a pilot of small aircrafts who once found himself stranded in the Sahara just like the narrator of his story, but that's where the similarity ends. (Unless this really is his biography about a true encounter. Do we dare to believe it?) TIME magazine called Saint-Exupery 'the most metaphysical of aviators,' but tragically, he disappeared the very following year, on a wartime reconnaissance flight over Europe. His plane was discovered in the sea 60 years later, the only trace of the talented writer and illustrator, not counting this brilliant novella.

Here's how it all goes down. The narrator is a pilot whose small plane has engine trouble over the Sahara Desert, forcing him to land. While he's trying to fix his mechanical problems before dying of thirst, a small blonde boy approaches to engage him in conversation. He turns out to be an alien from outer space who has visited several other planets before arriving on earth. He's full of stories and puzzled questions about all that he's seen.

The Little Prince (who I'll call LP from now on) comes from a tiny asteroid known to earthlings as B-612, no bigger than the size of a house. It has three knee-high volcanoes and plenty of small baobab seedlings which he has to uproot before they grow big enough to cause major structural damage. There's also one strange and beautiful flower with four thorns and a wonderful fragrance, who believes she's unique in the universe. LP loves her, and works hard to help her flourish, but she's a vain and prickly attention seeker who annoys him sometimes, so he hitches a ride with a flock of birds to find out what else is out there.

It's one of those simple children's fairy tales on the surface with underlying parallels, making it the sort of allegory adults recognise themselves in and appreciate. The LP meets all sorts of archetypal and bewildering people who think they're carrying out roles of great consequence, although they strike him as ridiculous. They're too blinkered to look beyond their noses and appreciate the beauty that surrounds them, and dismiss his observations as frivolous chatter.

Among others, there's a pompous king with no real power, a tippler who drinks to forget he's ashamed of drinking, a businessman intent on tallying stars in his ledger, and a geographer who never visits the places he records, because that's the work of an explorer. There's also a conceited man who wants to be hailed as the best person ever. LP gives him the positive feedback he craves, then wonders why the guy thinks he's any better off than before. LP can't understand the point of praise as an end in itself.

But LP learns enough during his travels to develop his own crushing case of disillusionment. Especially when he comes across a garden full of thousands of roses, and knows his special friend would be devastated, because they both believed she was unique. He's crestfallen because he set off believing he was rich and blessed, and is brought to see that compared to those on earth, his modest volcanoes and common rose may make others say, 'Meh, so what?' What do you do when you find out that you're just an Average Joe?

It takes my favourite character, the beautiful fox, to help him straighten his thinking. The fox asks LP to please tame him, because then they'll be meaningful to each other. Taking time to establish ties with others, working on relationships, listening, nurturing and understanding, is well worth the effort. It's what makes run-of-the-mill chance encounters into something far more valuable. This reasoning strikes a chord with LP. I believe a major insight for him is not to take our cues from self-appointed voices of consequence, because what is meaningful to us is so often brushed past by them.

'He was only a fox, like a hundred thousand other foxes, but I have made him my friend, and now he is unique in all the world.'

His new friendship puts him in the position to better grasp the significance of his old one.

'She alone is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses. It is she I have watered, she I've put under a glass globe, sheltered behind the screen, killed the caterpillars for and listened to when she grumbled or boasted. She is MY rose.'  

'The Little Prince' may bring different impressions to different people, because there's a lot crammed within its deceptively simple pages. For me it's a wake-up call to value those personal relationships in my life as the treasures they are. My husband, kids, extended family and friends are priceless just because they belong to me. As the LP and the narrator both agree, it should take only a little bit to satisfy us when we truly know what we are looking for. 'The men of the world can't find what they're looking for in a surplus of roses or huge bodies of water. And what they are searching for can be found in one single rose, or in a little water.'

I'm not always a big fan of parables and allegories, because their agenda sometimes seems shoved right in our faces, with highly predictable plots and cardboard characters. This is one of the best I've come across, because its weird, left-fieldedness really does make us use our own grey matter to ponder what Saint-Exupery might have been getting at. And without being over-sentimental itself, it has a way of drawing the best sort of sentimentality out of us.  So I'll finish off with a quote from the fox, who really is quite a guy.

'If you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow.'


Monday, April 15, 2019

Live Theatre - The Cursed Child Wrap-Up

I've just been to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child with my daughter, at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne. As soon as we found out early last year that a production was headed for Australia, we were super excited. I'd read and loved the play script, but seeing it performed on stage by talented actors was the cream on top, and we failed to figure out how some of the magical moves were done. There's nothing quite like a day of live theatre, and I was in my happy zone the whole time. 

As with many stories involving time travel, it's possible to discover plot holes. But I don't even care, because the charm to me is the characters, and the poignant depth of many things never actually said. It's full of fodder for the sort of psychological character study I enjoy. So I set myself the task of analysing each of the seven main characters, figuring I might as well get as much mileage as I can out of a flight to Victoria. 

So here goes. I've made a big effort to give no major spoilers, but rather delve into some of the mixed-up mindsets that makes a crazy, convoluted plot seem not only possible, but almost inevitable. Here's how we find the Golden Trio and Co in their early forties. 

Warning: Proceed with caution. Although spoilers regarding the play itself are minor and revealed early in the script, they do divulge crucial info about where key characters find themselves at the end of the 7-book series. 

He's now the Man who Lived, and the head of Magical Law Enforcement. But it's no happily-ever-after scenario for poor Harry. The poor guy has been carrying loads of baggage on his shoulders for years, including a major case of survivor's guilt. It's particularly heavy because he was the lynch pin at the centre of the most recent wizarding wars. Unkind jibes such as, 'Look how many people had to die to save the boy who lived,' cut straight to his aching heart.

He's too guilt-ridden to balance these accusations with the reply, 'Well, look how many people survived because of me.' Only Harry himself knows what a run-of-the-mill, essentially un-heroic person he feels like deep down. It makes it torturous to deal with the knowledge that many worthy people lost their lives to his cause. He's a perfect example of the truth that hero status may bring with it a misguided sense of responsibility. No doubt it's also the key to why he gets so defensive about his son's antagonism.

To Harry, young Albus skirts dangerously close to placing his finger on something he doesn't want to face. That is the fact that Harry cannot make things okay for everyone. His load also includes buried resentment against Albus Dumbledore, a wizard he idolised, who failed to come through for him in many ways since his babyhood. He dreads becoming the same sort of person. And he doesn't want to bring the hurt out into the open, but it's festering there, compounding his own fear that he's inadequate for others. Poor Harry, what a mess of unacknowledged pain you're in. (You may also like Is Harry Potter a Bad Dad?)

At first sight, she's just like a mini Molly Weasley. Equally as bossy as her mother, her heart's cry is always, 'When something is wrong with my baby, something is wrong with me.' Ginny's son Albus is hurting deep inside, and she's immensely frustrated that she can't fix it at the source, which appears to be her husband.

She does lots of shouting throughout the play, which strikes me as the sign of a thwarted control freak. When our anxious efforts fail to launch and remain unheeded, raising our voices seems to be the last ineffectual stand we can take. Ginny has a history of frustration to draw from. The youngest sibling of seven, the only girl in a family of flamboyant boys, a young woman whose object of affection barely noticed her for years. Her desire for control seems to shoot out in various ways, such as banning sugar consumption for her whole family. (She has more success there than I would ever wield with my mob!) I do understand her.

But like the other characters, Ginny is forced into a crisis where her only option is waiting to see how it will all work out. That's anathema to all control freaks, and is bound to crop up time and again until we learn the lesson. I wonder if Ginny gets it this time.   

It's satisfying to see somebody brilliant moving into a suitable outlet for her skill set. She's the Minister of Magic! Hermione was a fantastic all-rounder, with a clever brain capable of swelling, just like her awesome handbag, with an infinite amount of material. The right person got the job. Her hard work and curious, ambitious nature came through, earning her the ultimate spot at the top.

Yet there's there's a flip side to the glory. Hermione's role in The Cursed Child reveals the huge sacrifice involved in the victory. Basically, her life is no longer her own. She's on-call 24/7, required to drop everything when sudden events knock the wizarding world off kilter. She's always the one in the firing line to have blame slung at her, often for actions taken by others. Dealing with flak and reproach is a way of life for her, because the buck stops with the leader.

Hers is the role of placating, announcing bad news, and trying in vain to inspire others. (For example, Harry is irritated when she tries to make him sort through his paperwork.) One of her lines proves what a juggling act a key leadership role is. She remarks that Ron thinks she sees more of her secretary than she does of him and their children. Ouch, proof right there that influence and prestige come at a great cost. A powerful person has to focus on one aspect of her life at the expense of others. Even in her student days with a time turner, trying to do it all made her crack at the seams. There's no doubt that those who are most gifted, perhaps with a burden to shape history, are often required to make the biggest sacrifices.

No way would I be a Hermione, but I take my hat off to her.

He was born in the shadow of talented, high-achieving family members, and has struggled with the pain of feeling outclassed by those closest to him for as long as he can remember. What irony that a boy with such deep hang-ups marries a girl who's destined to become the Minister of Magic. Enough to make us wonder if grappling with this issue is simply his destiny. Does the repeating cycle give you the feeling that he's meant to just deal with it?

It would seem he's making progress in the right direction in middle age. Being Mr Mum to his kids and helping his brother George run the joke shop are seemingly humble roles, but they are good, valid life paths that need to be taken on by someone. So maybe that elevates them to greatness after all, because we all know there shouldn't be any lifework or calling hierarchy. For the most part, it seems Ron has accepted this in his forties, but those niggles of touchiness from the past still needle him on rare occasions. Our deepest gripes have a way of popping up when we least expect them. It's probably an unrealistic hope to shrug them off completely, but if we reach a stage where we recognise them quickly and deal with them on the spot, we're doing well.

This play's plot has chosen to emphasise one main aspect of his character, which is his humour. Ron is given an essentially comic role, which some fans hate about this play. They're disappointed that the brave and resourceful side of him is downplayed. But I say, hey, he's proven that he has loads of courage and resourcefulness when it's required, so why not just get off his back when it isn't? Life isn't about proving our worth each and every day of our lives. That's such a Ron Weasley theme, when you think about it. The man is a valuable contributor to society, just being there.

Since his late teens, his entire world concept has been turned topsy-turvy. In the intervening years, he's evidently been trying to find new, solid ground on which to stand, and doing a pretty decent job if the play is any measure.

All small children grow up thinking their parents are always right, so he naturally bought into the bigoted, cold-hearted, evil worldview of Lucius and Narcissa. Draco's goal was always to make them proud, but his dawning realisation that they were actually on the wrong side is fascinating to trace. Circumstances forced him to face up to the fact that pleasing them is impossible, and they aren't really worth impressing anyway. And he's had to build a whole new personal philosophy, even if the price he paid was deep loneliness and alienation from those he once called his own.

His theme in the play is a redemptive one, proving that it's never too late to start over. His life goal in middle age is no longer about hearing, 'Well done,' from his parents or the Dark Lord, but as he says, 'Choosing the man you decide to become,' and gauging his decisions on that choice. It's a daunting challenge to build a whole new identity from scratch, because you have to trust yourself, even when your track record isn't brilliant. He's managed it with a fair bit of Malfoy sass and flair. A pretty amazing achievement, for a guy who was brought up believing that bad was good and vice versa. Unfortunately, it's not an easy task to convince the world at large that you've changed. There'll always be haters even when you've kept your nose clean for 20+ years. His innocent son Scorpius is bearing the brunt, which is killing Draco. (You may also enjoy Bad Boys with Depth)

This brings us to two of the most interesting characters of all, the representatives from the next generation, who bear a legacy of weight from their parents on their young shoulders.

Albus Potter
Children who have to live under the shadow of famous parents often do it tough. They are forced to exist on a nightmarish carousel that won't stop. Any other Slytherin student of academic mediocrity might be left in peace, but Albus is singled out for teasing and criticism simply because his father is Harry Potter. And just to rub it in, he even carries the names of two hero wizards his father most admired. He didn't choose his heritage, and every part of it seems to emphasise how far short he falls. As far as he can see, his celebrated dad is incapable of grasping where he's coming from. Albus is too wrapped up in his own problems to sense that Harry is battling so hard with his own demons.

All the resentment, sarcasm, eye-rolling and belligerence shown throughout the play by Albus is easy to understand. He's built a protective wall of self-pity that's hard to penetrate. His parents have tried and failed to get through. It takes some vulnerable and heartfelt straight talk from his best friend to provide a possible way out. No way will I spoil the play by repeating the exact words, but it amounts to looking beyond his own plight to notice that others might be faring even worse, and hurting just as bad, in circumstances even more unfair. Empathy hasn't been a tool in Albus' arsenal, but there's a sense in this scene that it clicks in at last. And that brings us to arguably the best character in the play.

Scorpius Malfoy
At first sight, this awkward young geek isn't an integral part of the convoluted plot, but just along for the ride, to support his hurting friend. But he has to step up to help save the day on numerous occasions, and I'd go so far as to say that he becomes the glue that holds the play together.

I believe we warm to Scorpius partly because he's such a great example of how to face rejection. He's grown up as the butt of hateful rumours and target of bullies, simply because of the family he was born into, yet he doesn't grow bitter or respond with nastiness in return. Although he lacks the esteem he deserves from his peer group, he does have a warm heart, and a unique way of buoying himself up by reading books, seeking knowledge and using his imagination. Those are the peaceable weapons that carry him through. Choosing to focus on good things doesn't put us in a position of power over our haters, but it does make us happier people in our own heads. And since our heads are where we view the world from, that spells victory. In his nerdy, unassuming way, this delightful boy offers us the secret of living well. He's presented as the person whose circumstances we'd least like to swap with, yet as events unfold, it turns out that perhaps he's the most enviable of all.

Maybe Scorpius is the reason why I'm happy to accept this story as part of the Harry Potter canon. Who would ever have expected a son of Draco Malfoy to enter the scene with his fresh philosophy and generous nature to redeem others and point us on the right track to conducting ourselves in the world? Yet life is all about remaining open to wonderful surprises from unexpected people.

My recommendation is to definitely read it, and go and see it if you possibly can. The mix-ups and near disasters are great fun to watch. And the ultimate take-away, to approach life like Scorpius as much as possible, may be well worth the money I paid for flight, accommodation and theatre tickets.    

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The problem with Lucy Maud Montgomery's heroes

Warning: There are no plot spoilers as such, but you may like to take my opinion expressed here with a grain of salt.

This lady is high on many 'favourite author' lists, including mine. I collected all of her novels when I was a teenager, and they are still a highlight of my shelf. I love the entire Anne of Green Gables series, plus stories about Emily, Pat, Jane, Valancy, the Story Girl and others. Tapping into the wealth of all that L.M. Montgomery wrote is a real treat. She left an incredible legacy when she passed away.

Anybody would agree that girls are clearly the target audience. I've never known a boy who's read one yet. But they're happy to let their girlfriends, wives, sisters and other females in their lives retreat into the sweet stories, which seemingly do nobody any harm. Just a simple indulgence, right? A bit of romantic fun in which the main character always marries her perfect match? If they suspected the truth, our young men might be far more worried. But they are deterred by the feminine covers from opening the pages, so never find that L.M. Montgomery is undermining them.

The stark truth is that her heroes raise the bar far, far too high for our normal guys to live up to. With each chapter, her fictional heroes gain more and more ground in their readers' eyes, until they're not even fully aware of it. Her magic works like this. The heroes often begin as humble, unassuming boys, but here is a sample of the super achievers they become over time.

Gilbert Blythe - beloved family doctor.
Teddy Kent - famous artist.
Perry Miller - upper echelon politician.
Hilary Gordon - award winning architect.
Barney Snaith - celebrated nature writer.
Andrew Stuart - brilliant novelist and historian.

Do you sense a pattern? I want to suggest that her sort of guy is a rarity in real life, but Montgomery creates the illusion that super-romantic, highly intelligent, sensitive, manly geniuses are common enough to be always within a stone's throw. Maybe there really was a surplus on Prince Edward Island in the late 19th century, but I doubt it. She somehow manages to divvy out their brilliance so that everyone in their lives gets the best of them; employers, clients, the public and their lovers alike. The women in their lives rarely feel as if they're missing out on quality time. If this is the sort of guy our young women expect to come walking into their lives, the poor, true life young men around them don't stand a chance.

As we read the novels, we may come across occasional digs at other young men who didn't measure up on the awesome scale. They are often former suitors who ended up becoming nothing more than shop clerks or pen-pushers. And our heroines breathe sighs of relief because they dodged a bullet. They could've ended up - horror of horror - marrying men of mediocrity!

Let's not succumb to the outrageously high expectations she's set;  both for our own sake and those of the poor guys who try to please us. Some readers might choose to go completely cold turkey on L. M. Montgomery books, but I would never recommend that. They are wonderful mood-lifters, great examples of excellent literature, and plain good fun. Just take care, and I have a few tips to recommend how to wisely approach the novels and avoid their pitfalls.

1) Look out for her older heroes.
These more senior men seem to have escaped the need to be as ultra-successful in the world's eyes as her younger ones. They tend to be mature men with warm hearts, sound wisdom, but more modest occupations. Men such as Matthew Cuthbert (from Anne) and Cousin Jimmy (from Emily) are both humble farmers working on land which has been in their families for generations. They are true gentlemen beloved by generations, the salt-of-the-earth type who are content to slide beneath the radar. As you admire them, remember that there are young men like them in real life too. And look out for them, because they don't flaunt themselves.

2) Remember that Montgomery might have been caught in her own vicious net.
Her personal history is worth researching, and if her biographers are correct, it's sadder than any of her novels. She ditched a guy she was genuinely attracted to because his credentials weren't quite impressive enough to be considered husband material. But she still considered him the love of her life in years to come. And she ended up marrying a respectable pastor who turned out to be a depressed, high-maintenance, hyper-guilty, over-thinking, fanatical mess of a spouse who made life a misery for her and their sons. It's a sobering piece of true life. Don't be like Lucy. (This article may be a springboard if you're interested. And this one highlights even more how tragic it was for somebody who made us so happy to be so depressed herself.)

3) Enjoy your reading, but never forget that you're messing around with an addictive substance like shopping or sugar.
The wonderful heroes Montgomery invented are swoon-worthy heart-throbs. You can't look at a list like that above without curiosity to discover more. But as you do, remember that they don't necessarily reflect reality in every way. And we're living in the real world, not the idyllic Prince Edward Island of Lucy Maud's imagination. (Of course it's a real place, but I'm just suggesting her writing may colour it even more.) Treat the books like chocolate. They can be a pleasurable part of your reading diet, but don't binge on them, and when you finish one, make even more of an effort to appreciate all the honest, nice friends and brothers in your real, flesh and blood life. And don't use Gilbert, Teddy, Barney and all the others as measuring sticks, but as simple prompts to dig around for your fellows' excellent qualities and regard them in the best light.   

Monday, April 1, 2019

'The Catcher in the Rye' by J.D. Salinger

J.D. Salinger's classic novel of teenage angst and rebellion was first published in 1951. The novel was included on Time's 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923. It was named by Modern Library and its readers as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. It has been frequently challenged in the court for its liberal use of profanity and portrayal of sexuality and in the 1950's and 60's it was the novel that every teenage boy wants to read. 

This is a classic I've wanted to read for some time, and finally got a chance. I've also read Salinger's Franny and Zooey but prefer the Catcher by far.

Young Holden Caulfield has a problem. He detests phonies. Social climbers, fakes, name-droppers and try-hards of all kinds are everywhere, and he considers himself too honest to play the game. Since he hates the pretension of the school system, Holden won't put forth the effort to do any work. But his silent protest has caused his expulsion from three schools, and he's just been kicked out of a fourth. He knows it's all part of their showiness, since they won't tarnish their own image with under-achievers. But he hasn't quite figured out that playing the martyr role isn't hurting their reputation, but only harming his own future prospects.

The story takes place over three days, when Holden decides to walk out of Pencey Prep, his latest boarding school, half a week before his parents expect him home, and just hang out in New York City doing whatever takes his fancy. Holden makes a valiant effort to be a party boy, although he's a loner at his core. His first night is wild. The amount of activity he crams in between his last school dinner and waking up the following morning sounds physically impossible given the time frame. To sum up a little, he hits the town, writes an essay, tries to get some sleep, changes his mind and catches a train, dances in a ballroom, hangs out in another jazz club, walks 40 blocks back to his hotel, and and has a run-in with a couple of sleazy people, all under cover of the same never-ending darkness. But dawn eventually breaks, about ten hours after it should have, in my opinion. 

Although I'm not a big fan of some of the things he attempts to get up to, I greatly admire the boy himself. He's always polite to adults, easily imagines himself in other people's shoes, and never grumbles for nothing. There's always some well-formed reason to support his negative opinions, which he explains with a lot of original perception and humour. And surprisingly, there's hardly any profanity in my opinion, given what I'd been led to expect in the blurb. In fact, Holden goes out of his way to scrub rude graffiti off walls, so innocent kids don't have to see it.

To me, Holden's narrative proves the benefits of journal keeping. He takes a stream of consciousness approach, with one train of thought leading on to something quite different, including flashbacks and philosophical rants, that help reveal what's really ticking inside his troubled psyche. He notices some of those a-ha moments himself, but others are left hanging there for readers to latch onto if we're alert enough, which reveals details about us in turn. So it's the sort of novel where readers are invited to do some of the work, but we're rewarded for it, and may even come up with different, multi-layered themes.

Here's an example of one of mine. I believe Holden Caulfield shares with me an appreciation for sacredness and stability in a world of rapid change. We depend on some things remaining reliable, predictable, and certainly not phony. This drives his memories of good old school excursions to the museum, where all the exhibits are set up in a static, predictable pattern, even when the students themselves have undergone subtle changes between visits. We've learned by now that his younger brother died a few years earlier, which no doubt feeds Holden's phobia of change. The events of his life have been incorporated into the person he's become.

His story also tips us off to watch our own thoughts, because a plunge into deep depression can often be traced back to some simple germ in our mind that catches hold and shoots off. One of Holden's signature lines is, 'The more I thought about it, the more depressed I got,' about several simple catalysts. His thought life tugs poor Holden on a real downward spiral, which even begins to show up as physical symptoms. Dizzy spells, stomach aches, IBS and a lump in the throat which causes him to reflect, 'If you get very depressed about something, it's as hard as hell to swallow.' Considering that his story takes place in the 1950's, when not many people knew about such things as panic disorders, this book is a gem that's way ahead of its time.

Don't listen to voices out there urging us not to read it. It's been banned over the years, for 'glorifying a rebellious attitude', which sounds crazily shortsighted to me. It's a simplistic view that Holden himself would deplore. A delve beneath the surface reveals that his rebellion certainly isn't doing him any favours or giving him any fun, so there's not much 'glory' to attract other potential rebels. Taking it off the shelves just prevents others from taking the lessons Holden learns on board, who could really benefit from them.

Some of the more modern criticism leveled at poor Holden is to do with his identity and privileged position in society, which they believe makes him an ingrate for complaining. He's a young white male from a wealthy family (Dad a corporate lawyer) who do everything possible to give him a boost in life, including enrolling him at prestigious schools. These readers say, 'Suck it up, because there are people from minority groups everywhere with real problems who'd love to have yours, you entitled little git.'

Hmm, well since Holden Caulfield would be a very elderly granddad if he was still alive today, I'd like to have a try at addressing this sort of censure with his own teenage voice. I believe Holden might say something like, 'I get really irritated by people who get a kick out of guilt-tripping others who already feel bad. Why are minority groups the only people you'd readily excuse for feeling deeply blue about what they see in the world around them? Piling more shame on the shoulders of somebody who feels burdened is a pretty cruel move. You're using my gender, race, skin colour and economic status against me, in an attempt to put me down. Isn't that the same sort of discrimination you claim to hate? The more I think about that, the more depressed I feel.'

I'd urge anyone to give this book a read, and not write off this boy as the sort of person you couldn't learn anything good from. Besides, it ends on an uplifting note, as he experiences a sudden burst of happiness, during a moment spent with his kid sister. I get the strong impression that he's onto a breakthrough. Although those phonies and antagonists will never go away, we can dilute their influence by directing our own focus on the simple goodness out there. Even though Holden still has a long way to go, there are positive signs he'll make it through, a more peaceful and optimistic man. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and took a half mark off simply because of that impossibly long night. Maybe Holden should consider a career as a time management consultant, if he can stretch out the hours like that.



Monday, March 25, 2019

'Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine' by Gail Honeyman

No one’s ever told Eleanor that life should be better than fine. 

Meet Eleanor Oliphant: She struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding social interactions, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy. 

But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen on the sidewalk, the three become the kinds of friends who rescue one another from the lives of isolation they have each been living. And it is Raymond’s big heart that will ultimately help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one.

The title didn't grab me when I first saw it. I thought, 'Eleanor's obviously not fine at all,' and walked past. Since then, it's become a phenomenon, with must-read recommendations from all sorts of people. When I saw it at a bargain bookshop, I thought I'd take my chance. I had two false starts, finding it hard to muster the interest to get beyond a bikini wax appointment at the start. But even more readers kept the glowing reviews coming, and rumours of a movie are in the pipelines. So I pushed through and finished the book at last. It's all about lonely Eleanor with a horrific past she's trained herself never to think about, and Raymond, the friendly IT guy who takes a genuine interest in her, making him the very first.

Other workmates have largely ignored her because Eleanor's not easy to warm up to. She's been totally alienated for a good two thirds of her life, which hasn't been great for her social skills. She's sharp, observant and tends to make outrageously tactless statements, partly because solitude hasn't given her empathy muscle much room to develop, and partly because not having rubbed shoulders with others, she simply hasn't picked up socially acceptable responses.     

I share the love for the features other readers rave about. It's great that a doughy, paunchy, super-scruffy IT worker like Raymond is shown to be the hero his kind heart makes him. This guy deserves to wear a cape. I like the revelation that small, simple deeds we may not even bother offering could actually be what makes the world go round. I like Eleanor's growing appreciation for Raymond, who she dismisses as a bore and a slob at first. And what I love most is seeing how success and progress for Eleanor means returning bravely to the life she was already living. It's so true that often what's required isn't worldly accolades, material goods, or change of circumstances, but simply a fresh outlook. We don't need to make a splash or public stir of any kind to be worthwhile human beings.

With all these excellent qualities, I was still a bit ambivalent when I finished. I loved the end, but for the first two thirds, I wasn't driven to pick up the book. I think it's because of what I'd call a broken record quality. There's a predictable repetitiveness, when a basic episode keeps recurring in slightly different circumstances. A huge chunk of the book is full of incidents that fit into either of these two categories.

1) Eleanor goes for some beautifying, pampering or retail therapy. The stranger behind the counter reacts with the rolling of eyes, or some other sign to show that she comes across as an eccentric. Or 2) She is out at some lunch, party or social event, and makes a tactless comment that proves she's unaware of social conventions. Raymond almost chokes on whatever he's messily chewing, stunned yet again by her frankness or naivety, until he recollects himself and things start rolling again.

The story's bestseller momentum is speeding faster than its glacial plot. So many thousands of readers have taken lonely, weird Eleanor to their hearts, I wonder if that love is extending to the real-life oddballs in their own offices and schools. Or are these solitary bods still sidelined and overlooked while their acquaintances are standing around, raving on about their compassion for Eleanor Oliphant? If it truly does open people's eyes to the invisible mass of traumatised and depressed folk around us, and inspire us to take on Raymond's simple mission, it'll be worth every cent spent.

But maybe it's not entirely about others at all, but more about us. Maybe we warm so readily to Eleanor because she displays many of our own secret personal doubts. (Minus her lack of close family members and horrific background.) Do we relate to her impression of being a perpetual fifth wheel in the world, unnecessary and unappreciated? Or her floundering feeling of not quite grasping the social cues that link everyone else? Or her empty yearning when she scrolls down the social media of others? Or foolish, personal histories of getting carried away on waves of imaginary saviours and rosy futures? I can raise my hand to all of these, at different moments. If the story helps us be easier on ourselves, it's worth every cent spent too.

Some of the healing things that help Eleanor start to live again, when she's faced her traumatic past, include simple fixes that can do anyone good. 'Noticing detail, that was good. Tiny slivers of life added up, and helped you feel that you too could be a fragment. When you start to notice things around you, you feel lighter.' There's one for any of us who find ourselves in an intense fog of preoccupation.

Being a skillful helper like Eleanor's psychologist Maria Temple may be far from reality for many of us, but maybe we could at least aspire to be like Raymond (although he is amazing in pushing through with somebody whose manner isn't particularly warm.) Or we could be like his mother Betty, who Eleanor calls 'quite simply a nice lady who raised a family and now lives quietly with her cats and grows vegetables. That is both nothing and everything.' Or Sammy, the loving old dad whose friendliness extends to his rescuers.

I don't want to give the idea that nothing but random acts of kindness ever happen. There's a poignant subplot where Eleanor allows herself to form pipe dreams about a random, handsome face, and also a plot twist I'm not entirely convinced came off flawlessly. This is one of those times I wish I could discuss spoilers. Let's just say it puts Eleanor Oliphant up there with the biggest unreliable narrators of all time, but that's enough. Overall, I'd give the book four or five stars for the theme and the ending, but just one or two for the tortoise pacing throughout the start. It's one of those cases where I have to take the averages for my final ranking.


Tuesday, March 19, 2019

'The Help' by Kathryn Stockett

Be prepared to meet three unforgettable women:

Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. Minny, Aibileen’s is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody’s business, but can’t mind her tongue, so she’s lost yet another job.

Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.


I'm late on this book's bandwagon, but bought a copy from a second hand shop and finally got around to reading it. I get anxious about starting books with themes of racism. There's bound to be deep sadness, and in our current era of strict political correctness, do these stories even apply the balm of kindness we all need, or simply act as a match to a highly charged tinder box? There's no point trying to heal a deep wound by always picking at the scars. So I was nervous going in, but it turns out I needn't have been. There's a lot to love about this To Kill a Mockingbird/Upstairs Downstairs hybrid. It's all about being a good and decent person.

The story is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960's, when racial discrimination was still as ugly as ever. It seemed the only real job prospect for a coloured woman was a maid and cleaner, and there were many white women demanding their service. 'The help' would basically bring up the children of their snooty employers, who then wondered why their kids preferred the hired people. Most folk accepted the status quo, until a trio of women rocked the boat with a top secret assignment, proving that the written word can pack a powerful punch.

White girl Eugenia (Skeeter) Phelan is upset when her beloved family maid Constantine is fired while she's away at college. It prompts her to consider writing a book full of interviews with coloured maids, but it's hard to find any takers for such a subversive act. Especially because coloured people are automatically suspicious when white folk are nice to them, with good reason. But eventually she gets Aibileen and Minny on board, who have been pushed far enough to realise that the time is ripe for speaking up.

These three narrators switch frequently throughout the story, and it's done so well that that when each one ends, we shake our heads moving on to the next, but are soon hooked by that thread too. It's all about cleaning and childcare of course, but has suspense and mystery. Why must Minny hide her presence from her boss's husband? What was the big surprise Constantine had in store for Skeeter, which she never discovered? Will Aibileen ever be caught when she tries to build up the confidence of Mae Mobley, the little daughter of her employers? 

Skeeter becomes one of those self-sacrificial writers who are called to put everything on the line, although she never sets out to be. Her bright idea begins as nothing more than a brainwave to help further her own career prospects. Yet it soon becomes evident to her that pursuing it might mean losing everything else important to her. Such a lot is stripped away that her only reason to continue has to be belief in the cause itself. For her more than anyone else, it's very much a personal growth story.

Minny's part of the story is very cool. She's one of the most indignant and wronged people of all, but finds herself disarmed by her new employers, Celia and Johnny Foote, who don't fit into the pattern she's grown to expect from white people. 

The villain of the piece is Hilly Holbrook, a young trendsetter who many other white ladies look to for cues as to how to think and behave. She's trouble on two legs; in a perfect position to use her social power for kindness, but choosing prejudice and meanness instead. Minny says that Hilly is sent by the devil to ruin lives. She's the sort of nasty girl who seems sweet on the surface, but spells disaster for anyone who crosses her. It's fun for readers to hate Hilly, and speculate who she'll push too far.

My favourite character, who provides the overall tone of kindness and love, is Aibileen. I'd love to be on her prayer list! They have a proven track record. She always writes them instead of speaking them, because a teacher once challenged her to keep reading and writing every day. Her own faith surely adds to their power, since she considers them to be like electricity that keeps things going. That's why she carefully considers whether it's worth the risk of adding any new folk, like Miss Skeeter. And Minny adds, 'We all on a party line to God, but you sitting right in his ear.' What a wonderful inspiration for all of us readers to think of prayer the same way, and that might be one of the best takeaways from the whole book.


Friday, March 15, 2019

The World's Greatest Narcissists

Narcissism has always been a human problem throughout the ages, but it's easier than ever to indulge in the 21st century, because we have so many outlets to toot our own horns. Our potential audience is not just neighbours in our close vicinity but people from all around the globe. Arguably, the wonders of social media give our narcissism cultural validation. The 1970s was called the 'Me Decade', and now there are claims that we've simply moved a step further to the 'iEra'. Christopher Lasch, in 'The Culture of Narcissism' suggests that it's simply the characteristic pattern of our culture. Ouch, I don't want to be swept along by that tide, but in our day and age, it's all too easy.

Several people have suggested that we just stop. Not only because it's a bad habit, but it makes us so miserable. They advise us not to check our social media updates often, or spend obsessive time on impression management, and if we're feeling unduly depressed, we should examine our hearts to determine whether or not it's simply because our brilliant post hasn't received as many likes, hearts, or shares as we'd hoped for (ouch again).

I believe going cold turkey is easier said than done. But maybe this list of mine could be an added tool to scare us out of our narcissistic habits, for who wants to see ourselves mirrored in these dudes? I'm calling them the greatest narcissists, but hey, they would call themselves the greatest, full stop.

1) Narcissus

Since he provided the name, I'll kick off with this haughty and gorgeous young man from Greek mythology. He's lured to the side of a pool, where he beholds his own reflection and falls deeply in love with it. Not realising it's merely his own image, he's unwilling to leave, and eventually pines away, believing his love is not reciprocated. Hence, the term 'narcissism' was coined for people who have a fixation with themselves, their appearance and public perceptions.

2) Lucifer
He was hailed as the most beautiful angel of all, the bright morning star. But this wasn't enough for him. His enormous ego and thirst for adulation led him to challenge God's position. Whoa, that's some serious narcissism.

3) Dorian Grey
This young man is the (anti)hero of Oscar Wilde's masterpiece. His initial reaction when his portrait is unveiled is heartache because he won't stay so gorgeous. He vows to give his soul if only he can keep his wonderful beauty while the portrait grows old and faded instead. (My review is here.)

4) Gaston
Beauty and the BeastBelle's persistent suitor won't take no for an answer, because he truly believes he's too wonderful to resist for long. The hordes of village admirers do nothing to quench his vanity. In the movie, we see him saying, 'You are the most gorgeous thing I've ever seen,' and the scene pans out to show that rather than addressing Belle, he's standing before a mirror. He's prepared to take her by force toward the end, just because he can't stand the idea that she isn't head over heels in love with him, as every other girl seems to be. And whatever Gaston wants, Gaston gets, until now.

5) King Saul
A biblical narcissist, he was Israel's first king. Saul started off okay, but succumbed to a deep need for everyone to call him the best, before he could relax. He built monuments in his own honour, and when he heard snatches of song that David was admired even more than he for his war conquests, he couldn't stand it. He set out to murder the perceived threat to his position on several occasions.

Snow White6) Snow White's stepmother
In a way, she was the female counterpart to King Saul. She had to stand before her magic mirror to reinforce that she was the fairest in the land before she allowed herself to get on with her day. And it was all for her personal glory. One day when she learns that another person is fairer, she sets off in a rage to have her killed, because being the second fairest in the land would be a disaster. Although she's the only female on this list, I'm sure there are as many girl narcissists as boys out there for real.

7) Bree
The Horse and His Boy (Chronicles of Narnia, #3)There's no reason why they all have to be human, either. C.S. Lewis gave us a very narcissistic horse. Bree was always anxious to make sure everyone was aware that he was a noble, Narnian war stallion, and not a common stable hack. The thought that rolling on his back might be a vulgar Calormene habit he's picked up horrifies him. He's always clear that he's the boss of the mission, and the spurs and reins are just for show. Toward the end, he's humbled and chastised when circumstances prove that he's not the brave, perfect steed he thinks he is. And as Aslan says, it makes him a much nicer horse.

The Emperor's New Groove

8) Emperor Kuzco
Another animal, he's a llama throughout much of the story, although he starts off as a very spoiled, human brat. Even in his miserable transformed state, he keeps wanting to see the spotlight moved from the good-hearted Pacha back to himself, because he's the star! He's the teenage monarch who was prepared to demolish an entire peasant village to build himself a theme park in his own honour. Thankfully, he's young enough for some decent character development throughout the movie, where he learns empathy for others, in the nick of time.

9) Prince Hapi
While we're mentioning rulers, this one was played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 2004 movie version of Around the World in 80 Days. Clearly used to moving people as chess pieces, the prince demands that the trio of main characters come to his banquet, then insists on keeping the lovely Monique La Roche to join his harem. Their only way of enforcing her release is to threaten harm to the precious statue of himself, cast in the guise of the Thinker. It's well worth a watch.

10) Zap Brannigan 

Futurama AdventuresHe shows that narcissism will be alive and well in the future. The general public think he's a respected military hero, but his crew know him to be an arrogant and incompetent narcissist who will sacrifice them at the blink of an eye. He expends a lot of energy trying to foster his heroic illusion, and win the heart of Leela, whose one eye sees through him clearly enough.

11) Caul
Without giving away too much of his role in the Peculiar Children series, the considerable effort he expends to rise to the top is all for his own personal glory. He's easily seduced by imagining himself in history books of the future, and is known to stop what is happening, so he can make lofty quotes and speeches for that purpose. (My reviews of the series begins here.)

12) Napoleon
I'm including the version of the mighty French emperor portrayed by Count Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace. It may be somewhat skewed, since Tolstoy was clearly on the Russian side of the war in his masterpiece. However, I'm sure he loved writing the narcissistic quirks of Bonaparte, including his passion for positive feedback and careful impression management for future history books. The fact that one man's drive to conquer Europe resulted in the deaths of millions is a dark side of narcissism that deserves to be highlighted. (My review of War and Peace is coming soon.)   

And my favourite Narcissist

13) Gilderoy Lockhart

He's the Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher in Harry's second year at Hogwarts, who we first meet on a book tour for his autobiography, Magical Me. At that stage he comes across as an insufferable celebrity who has let fame go to his head. When Harry is placed in detention, Gilderoy's punishment is to get him to write replies to his extensive fan mail. He soon reveals himself to be more incompetent than his heroic memoirs and text books would have people believe. And at last, he's unveiled as a crook who has destroyed the real heroes, just to claim their glory for himself. He's prepared to blast Harry's and Ron's memories, not because he has anything against the boys, but because they know his shameful secret. What a guy!

A funny, but sort of sobering list. They're famous alright, but I doubt any of them would have wanted to be famous for being narcissists. As always, I'd enjoy reading your thoughts, not to mention any extra narcissists I may have missed.